Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 198)

WEDNESDAY 30 JANUARY 2002

MR ALASTAIR THOMSON AND MS SUE CARA

Mr Simmonds

  180. I got the impression from your opening remarks that you are a reluctant advocate of the ILA scheme. I may have misinterpreted your remarks, but do you envisage that there are better ways of getting taxpayers' money to adults who need to improve their skills and, if so, what are they?
  (Mr Thomson) I think there is a tension between any government's social agenda and economic agenda in that there will be a line which has to be drawn. I think our position would be more towards widening participation than deepening participation amongst groups already well disposed towards learning.

  181. Does that mean targeting a greater number of people who do not have any specific qualifications at the moment?
  (Mr Thomson) Yes.

  182. You are not in favour of universality?
  (Mr Thomson) There were some very interesting ideas about ten years ago when both political parties were tossing around the idea of having HE included within a "Learning Bank" or a "learning credit system", but that is a very different question.

  183. The sort of issue or future policy you are espousing seems to be moving away from one of the general underlying foundations of ILAs, which is the universality. You seem to be suggesting that that is not the way that you believe any successor to the scheme should be going.
  (Mr Thomson) I am not convinced that it is the best use of public money to pay people to do what they would do anyway.

Chairman

  184. But would they? We touched on this earlier, that it is an incentive to get people back into training and there is something appealing to some Members of this Committee of a universal provision because we suspect that that is the way you change the culture where everyone in our society believes that learning and relearning and skilling and upskilling is a natural part of life and very often it is the people who will not be the people with the least qualifications that actually lead the way in that. Is there not an argument for changing culture with a universal provision and the ILAs were a very good example of that?
  (Mr Thomson) I think it depends on how long you want to take to change the culture. I think in other areas of public policy you find that it is the sharp elbows of the middle classes which get to the front of the queue first.

  185. But a lot of research goes that it is when the middle classes lead, other people follow and that is always a very interesting indicator. If you want to change culture, it is very often those middle-class professions who want to lead the way and others follow.
  (Ms Cara) I just think that in the area of adult continuing education, the middle classes have been leading from the front for a very long time and it has taken rather too long for others to catch up. I do not think that is necessarily working. All our participation surveys show a huge take-up, an increasing take-up by the groups who have had a good go in the education system first time around and that is not followed by an increase, in fact just the opposite, in that at the other end they are less likely to participate than they were before.

Valerie Davey

  186. Looking at the future which is where we now need to focus, you, like others, are recommending better advice and guidance and I think we are now in this Committee taking that as a bespoke, but you are suggesting that we ought to be focusing perhaps on groups as well as individuals for future proposals. Can you elaborate or tell us a little bit more about what that is about?
  (Mr Thomson) I think, by and large, learning works better when it is a social experience and people learn from their peers and people realise, "It is for people like us rather than people like them" when they are able to do it and when they are with their workmates or with their families or their neighbours. I think this was a trick that was missed, although Mr Rodger, I think, pointed out that the Department is doing a single pilot on this and I think that would be well worth following up.

  187. So again the trade unions were in a very good position to enable that very idea to happen. Can you think of any other settings where that might be, for those whom we want to target, an appropriate field for further development?
  (Ms Cara) I think that in some community-based projects certainly, and I think perhaps in some regeneration projects where you have groups of learners or groups of people working together on issues, ILAs might be something which could be put at the disposal of a group of learners as opposed to individuals.

  188. Do you think there are providers out there who also recognise that and are providing in that way, as opposed to saying, "Here we are, take it or leave it"?
  (Ms Cara) I am certain that providers recognise that need. I am quite sure, I know from the projects which we run, that there are people who are encouraging learners to go on together, and one of the things they may use to do that is Individual Learning Accounts, but they know they have to use them as individuals not as a group.

  189. So again, what contact do you have with Government, are they seeking your advice and what would you advise?
  (Mr Thomson) Formally we have not been invited to submit our comments yet. Informally my colleagues and myself have contact with the officials and we have been making this case, I guess, for some years.
  (Ms Cara) For a while. I think we would expect to be one of the constituent organisations whose views would be taken into account there.

  190. Lastly, given that, on the funding of this—and you are talking about reconsidering the discount side—what would you advise them as to the balance between the individual, potentially the employer or the community group, and the Government? What is the input that is going to be most appropriate for encouraging these new learners back into lifelong learning?
  (Mr Thomson) I think that if it could be unlocked, the contribution of employers is probably the most significant, because that encourages people to believe that there is a real value in learning, when hard-headed employers such as the Ford Motor Company allow their workers to experiment (with learning).

Mr Shaw

  191. There has been a lot of concern expressed about the time the Government are taking to come up with a new proposal. There is a concern that because of the time it has taken there is going to be a loss of faith amongst providers and, indeed, learners. What is your view? Do you think the Government should take the time to get the next ILA right? Do you think that people are right who are saying, "Oh well, if you don't do it quickly then the whole thing's going to fall apart"? What is your view on that?
  (Ms Cara) My view, or our view, is that I think we obviously would like to see things move forward as quickly as possible, but I think it is actually critical to get it right, and I think that getting it right is probably a little bit more important in this than getting it wrong tomorrow but doing something. So I think we want a scheme that people could believe in from the start, and I think it would be worth spending a little more time in preparation to get something which had some of the attributes that we have heard about this morning, rather than rushing back to something which just plugged a few gaps and remained exactly the same otherwise.

  192. But it may be that only a few gaps need plugging.
  (Ms Cara) Obviously our view is that as there is going to be a Mark II Individual Learning Account, it should not merely plug the gaps in full, but it might also address some of the features which were less attractive about the last option, one of them being dead weight.

Chairman

  193. Is not that a bit uncaring? Here you are, you are a bit on the institutional side in terms of the people whom you represent. What about all those people we had evidence from last week? There are businesses and some of them have gone bankrupt. They are being encouraged to come in as new providers—that was some of the excitement—very good new providers, many of them. Here you are saying, "Well from our point of view, the Government can take plenty of time." What about all these people who came in and are losing their jobs and their businesses? What about all that fresh talent which was actually adding to the quality and breadth of provision? Are you not being rather hard on them?
  (Ms Cara) I did not say that. I said first of all that I think it is important to get it right, and I think those providers will be better served by its being put right. I also said it was important to get it done as fast as possible, but not at such a speed that we had further problems down the line.

  194. But Alastair Thomson said you are waiting to do it. I would have thought, given your interest, that you would be pounding on the door of the Department saying, "Here's our evidence, here's how you improve the scheme", not just sitting there waiting. If you represented some of the new providers you would have to have more of an urgency about the message perhaps. Is that being unfair?
  (Mr Thomson) A little, I think.
  (Ms Cara) Yes.
  (Mr Thomson) We are certainly aware of the concerns of providers, and our e-mail groups have been buzzing on this particular topic. I think our members have taken the view that it is appropriate for us to prioritise the needs of the learners first, and to be assured that the fact that the learner is going to get high-quality experience at the end of it is actually more important at the end of the day.

  195. But you are ambivalent about it, to be quite honest. I am reading your evidence and you say that one of the things you make plain is putting trust in learners. Surely in an adult world most of the decisions which people make are based on them making decisions of what consumer products to buy, what holidays to book, all that sort of thing that they are adult enough to do. What the Government say is, "Here's your opportunity to get some individual learning. You must decide whether it's the quality you want" and leave it to the individual. Indeed, they are doing just what you said, putting trust in learners. On the other hand, you turn the page in the evidence you submitted and you are saying that the Individual Learning Account was very dangerous because it did not have bolted-down quality assurance. You are having your cake and eating it, are you not?
  (Mr Thomson) I think there is a difference between providers who can take a rational business decision and a learner who may not have experienced formal learning for 20-odd years being expected to just jump in.

  196. If I gave any of my constituents in Huddersfield £200 to go and do something, I would trust them to do it, I would not have to provide some sort of nanny guidance. They are pretty astute people in my constituency. Why should there have been quality assurance? Surely people should have walked up and looked at what was on offer, and indeed the evidence might suggest that most of them got it.
  (Mr Thomson) Even your constituents in Huddersfield benefit from trading standards officers, do they not?

  197. That is a very good answer. We have three minutes which I have allowed the Committee, because I want to give you the full half-hour. The fact of the matter is, what has not come from you is your view. You seem to be taking this view that some of us in this Committee are worried about, which is actually making too early a judgement about why the Government pulled the plug. I know I asked you this at the beginning. Are you not concerned at all that whatever the Minister told this Committee, the number of active prosecutions for fraud of ILA providers is tiny? Does that not concern you?
  (Ms Cara) I think it would concern anybody if, at the end of this procedure, it is only a very, very few providers that do turn out to have been fraudulent. I think that would be a matter of concern to anyone. However, we do not know that that is the case yet. Then there is the issue, even if it is a tiny number of providers, of in respect of how many accounts they were fraudulent. Of course that would be a matter of concern, because we know that providers and learners will have been affected by this, and it will be extremely worrying if, after all this pulling the plug, there were very few providers that were actually guilty. One of the things about anecdotes and things that we heard during the evidence, the things that your consultants said this morning, is that we think that if there are very few fraudulent providers then you can deal with them on a case-by-case basis. So if, at the end of that, we discover that that was not the case and there was not something widespread, that would be very worrying, of course, in many ways particularly if we have introduced as a result of it some kind of dead-hand audit in an area that did not need it.

  198. Thank you for that answer, but you do understand that this Committee's job is really to get through the anecdotes and find the facts?
  (Ms Cara) Exactly.

  Chairman: I am very grateful that today you have helped us move towards that objective. Thank you.





 
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